Over a million public employees in California who qualify for Social Security –directly or indirectly through their spouses – won’t get the benefits when they retire. They include firefighters, police officers and schoolteachers. Years ago, Congress voted to keep pensioners from double dipping. But the decision wound up penalizing civil servants across the country.
Mark Sobel, a rabbi in Burbank, pays part of his salary into Social Security, but when he retires he won’t see a penny of it.
"I would like to earn back what I put in," he told NBC4, "which I think is the American way. It smacks of taxation without representation."
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Brad Jackson worked for Ralph’s grocery stores for 25 years and paid part of his salary into Social Security. But he and his family are denied the full benefits.
"My children couldn’t benefit from it, " he said, "there are no survivor benefits."
Why this apparent injustice? Simple. At some point both men decided to take up a second career: the noble profession of teaching. Rabbi Sobel doubles as a history instructor in Sherman Oaks, California. Jackson quit Ralph’s to become a computer science teacher at the same high school. Once they entered academe, they forfeited the right to collect the Social Security benefits they’d earned in the private sector. So did their survivors, their spouses and children.
"If I pass away my wife will not get my Social Security benefits even though she was not a teacher. All the survivor’s benefits: child, spouse – it’s gone!" Sobel said.
Up until 1983, retired teachers in California could collect a state pension and the Social Security benefits earned from outside work. But then Congress voted to veto this so-called "double dipping." Teachers in 14 states –including California—who had opted for state pensions were denied Social Security benefits even if they’d paid into the fund while working in non-teacher jobs.
"Anyone that’s worked before retirement and then becomes a teacher, " Sobel said, " they lose all those benefits."
In every state there are other groups of civil servants such as police officers and firefighters who are similarly handicapped. They can collect state retirement benefits, but not Social Security earned in private employment.
Brad Jackson told NBC4 he was not aware of this Catch-22 when he became a teacher. Both Jackson and Sobel said no one ever told them they’d lose Social Security upon becoming teachers. They feel discriminated against.
"If I’d worked at another job in the state of California—not as a teacher," Sobel said, " I would draw Social Security and whatever pension of the company I worked for would be and I would have two pensions."
Worst of all, both said, the one-dip policy contributes to a shortage of teachers.
Congressman Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) agrees.
"It makes no sense," he told NBC4. "It discourages getting mid-career people to come into teaching.
He is outraged at the current policy. So is Bill Lambert, a former lobbyist for UTLA, the Los Angeles teachers’ union. Lambert told NBC4 he vividly recalls a retired teacher who was devastated to learn she couldn’t collect the Social Security benefits of her recently deceased husband, a non-teacher.
"She’s in tears," Lambert said, "I started looking into it some more and I discovered, it’s really interesting. Nobody seems to know about this."
Lambert and Congressman Berman have teamed up with other lawmakers to try to get the law changed. Lambert called it a matter of equity. But Berman says the chief stumbling block is money.
"To rectify it," he said, "it will probably cost eighty billion to eighty-five billion dollars over ten years."
Rabbi Sobel agreed that restoring his benefits and others’ will cut into Social Security reserves, but he added, "It’s my money. I want my money, this stuff I paid. I teach inclusion. I want to be included like everybody else."
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has joined Berman in his crusade to change the law. But Berman told NBC4, "Don’t expect much until Congress dares to fix the broken Social Security system." Meantime, teachers considering early retirement may find they’re poorer than they think. For additional information contact the Social Security Administration or the California Retired Teachers Association.